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  • Writer's pictureS.K. Chishty

La Viaccia (1961)

Layered period melodrama with excellent leads.

In 1885, a patriarch dies leaving his piece of land, the eponymous La Viaccia, to his son Stefano (Pietro Germi). The rest of the family, eagerly awaiting their own fortunes to change are disappointed. The elder son, Ferdinando (Paul Frankeur) buys the farm from Amerigo's father with the promise that his father's decision will be upheld after his own death. Stefano is determined that the farm eventually comes to them and agrees to send his younger son, Amerigo (Jean-Paul Belmondo) with Ferdinando to the city to mind his store.

The dreamy Amerigo has no option but to agree to his father and uncle.

In Florence, things get complicated when he meets a beautiful prostitute Bianca (Claudia Cardinale). Instantly besotted, Amerigo starts dipping in his uncle's till and lies to Bianca about him inheriting the farm soon.

Bianca, a complex and honest character, is focused on her retirement and makes it clear to Amerigo that she only cares about money. Though, her emotions are getting complicated, as well.

All hell breaks loose when the Ferdinando and his partner for years finds out about Amerigo's petty thefts.

Spurned by both, his father and Bianca, who gets angry when she knows that there is an uncle that has to be contested before Amerigo actually inherits anything, Amerigo is caught between his own ideal worldview where he is superior to everyone that he sees, his love for Bianca and his family.

Watching Belmondo and Cardinale together was half the pleasure here. They have very different styles that go beautifully together. A very confident young Cardinal plays her role alluringly, when required but with a naked hurt and anger against society that she cannot hide. Hers is a role of determination and she knows fully well that she will not let anyone come between her and the comfort that she is seeking.

Because this is mainly a coming-of-age story, Amerigo's is a role of slow realisation about life and people, in general. One of the themes in the film appears to be that of the lie that people are different in cities and country. Through his sarcastic and, at times, pained gazes and studied indifference, Belmondo gets across that people are the same everywhere - guided by greed, lust and traditions that seem to be losing value. He gets across an internalized despair and disappointment with life where he treats his family with open scorn at their ambitions to belong to a richer lifestyle, their willingness to put up with anything to reach there and even, their failure to be able to do so. Maybe the reason for Belmondo, a French actor, expressing himself without dialogues is a result of of him crowded by Italians, it works.

His condescension towards Bianca is stultified by his love and passion for her but even she does not escape his frustration. His failure is that while he shows contempt for his father for being obsessed with a piece of land, he does not realise that everyone has their La Valaccia - his own being Bianca. He himself lies, steals and is scared to commit to anything - he later even backs out of a promise to Dante (Romola Valli), the head of a group of anarchists.

Besides the leads, the supporting cast is also excellent and the film boasts fabulous black and white cinematography by Leonida Barboni. It's recreation of the period is excellent and it is no surprise that the production design by Piero Tosi won the Silver Ribbon award.

I have yet to see another film by Mauro Bolognini but this has certainly piqued my interest. He creates a layered narrative of a young man coming to terms with life while presenting a complex picture of the period.

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